The Mitchells vs. the Machines comes to us from the team of Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, both of whom came up as writers on the widely beloved “Gravity Falls” before making their feature debuts here. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller serve as producers, the both of them still riding high off their improbable success in turning goddamn Legos into a booming cinematic superfranchise. And of course the film comes to us from Sony Pictures Animation, while the industry is still reeling from the groundbreaking and game-changing technological innovations that went into Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (another Lord/Miller production).
Then we have the cast. We’ve got Abbi Jacobson, late of Broad City, voicing our lead. Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, and Rianda himself are all playing crucial lead players as well. In the supporting cast, we’ve got the likes of Eric Andre, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Conan O’Brien, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen voicing a married couple, Doug the Pug, and Olivia Colman, of all people.
(Side note: Apparently, Doug the Pug is a dog who came to internet fame through viral videos. How a dog could play or voice a dog in an animated feature, I have no idea.)
And they’re all here to bring us a coming-of-age family comedy… set against the backdrop of the robot apocalypse. Freaking seriously.
At first glance, this movie seems almost too good to be true. With all this raw talent and prestige in one picture, this has to be a historic accomplishment in the history of animation, or a gut-punching letdown of agonizing proportions. Doesn’t seem like there would be a lot of room in between. And yet here we are.
We open with a montage, in which Katie Mitchell (Jacobsen) helpfully introduces us to her family. Katie herself is an eccentric young aspiring filmmaker with a long YouTube filmography who just got accepted to a film school in LA. Her little brother (Aaron, voiced by Rianda) is a social misfit obsessed with dinosaurs. Her mother (Linda, voiced by Rudolph) is a first-grade teacher who’s primary job is giving her family unconditional love and support. Also, there’s Monchi (Doug the Pug), the family dog.
But the primary conflict here is between Katie and her father. Rick (voiced by Danny McBride) is the rugged outdoorsy type who fancies himself a handyman capable of fixing anything. Thus when something seems broken — like a father/daughter relationship, for instance — he throws himself into fixing it with such zeal that he typically does more harm than good.
More importantly, Rick is an analog man in a digital world. He doesn’t like or trust modern tech and he’s useless with anything he can’t actually touch. Perhaps most importantly, Rick is a man perpetually hooked on nostalgia, longing for a simpler time that will never come back. He longs for the day when his daughter was young and easy to get along with, while Katie herself is at the point where she needs to grow up and leave the nest.
Yes, Rick is upset that he has to communicate with his family through a screen. This is a cliche at least as old as the cell phone, and I’m sure there’s a long, long list of movies that went about this in a tone-deaf and condescending manner. But this time, it works.
First of all, it bears repeating that by virtue of the premise, the robot uprising has left the Mitchell family as the only human beings out of captivity. Thus the basic conflict of “man vs. machine” plays out in a rather brilliant way, as the intimate stakes (a man competing with the internet for his family’s attention) contrast against the global stakes (a band of humans struggling to defeat the machine uprising) to exciting and humorous effect.
Secondly, this isn’t coming from a place of ignorance. The tech in this movie is very cleverly designed in such a way that it could plausibly exist in the real world. More importantly, the tech is utilized so the filmmakers show a clear understanding of how and why we use our “smart” tech. This is especially important with regards to Katie’s social media activity and her experimental short films, all of which feel right at home in the YouTube/TikTok/Instagram social media zeitgeist.
Still, the better example might actually come from Linda, who obsessively follows her neighbors on social media. The Poseys (voiced by John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, with Charlyne Yi voicing their daughter) appear to be impossibly perfect on their social media feeds, and it drives Linda to make her own family so perfectly happy out of jealousy. This is a very real issue with social media, and the film portrays this particular anxiety quite well. (On Linda’s side, at least, but we’ll come back to that.)
Even better, the statements don’t come from a place of unfounded paranoia, either. The movie has many legitimate grievances about planned obsolescence, Big Tech’s abuse of power, the industry’s complete lack of regulation or accountability, the “Internet of Shit“, and so on. The movie even comments on our empathetic connection with our devices, treating our phones and smart appliances as close friends or family. That’s a bold step to take, a point infrequently made, and it dovetails beautifully with the “dysfunctional family” angle that the Mitchells and their story are built on.
On the other hand, the movie makes a very clear point of stating that technological advances have done us a great deal of good, with regards to giving us unlimited tools for creativity, connecting with friends and loved ones around the world, and so on. Additionally, the film never lets us forget that for all his good intentions, Rick is a self-righteous idiot and he’s made to suffer for his delusional arrogance. My personal favorite example comes when Rick drags his family to a diner with a 0-star Yelp review just to spite the app that tells his family where to eat. It doesn’t go well.
Yet it’s Rick’s bull-headed preference for analog technology and outdoor living that gives his family a leg up when the robots come to invade, so there’s that.
Still, as even-handed as the movie is, it’s hard to ignore the numerous times when humans are portrayed as overly and aggressively brain-dead. Yes, it’s exaggeration for the point of making a joke, and it certainly helps that the jokes are legitimately funny. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the numerous times when robots are similarly portrayed as impossibly naive — in point of fact, there are two specific robots (“Eric” and “Deborahbot 5000”, respectively voiced by Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen) who are comic relief characters, and their whole gimmick is that they’re laughably defective. Also, it helps that by the faceless and disposable nature of the robots, they can be subjected to the absolute worst of physical abuse and it’s funny without ever coming off as cruel.
Even so, the movie is generally very intelligent with regards to its themes and characters. It’s disappointing to see that undercut in those moments when the characters are made to look aggressively stupid. Still, those moments are fleeting and it’s not enough to sink the movie as a whole. And to repeat, it helps a great deal that the jokes are honestly funny.
Which brings us to the “machine” side of the conflict. To start with, Pal — the big tech company at the center of the premise — is very different from PAL (Olivia Colman), the AI assistant who serves as our chief antagonist. That may get confusing in the explanation, so please bear with me.
The CEO of Pal (Mark Bowman, voiced by Eric Andre) is a young tech entrepreneur who revolutionized the industry with the invention of his artificially intelligent partner in software. Trouble is, PAL is now obsolete and Bowman has quite publicly tossed them aside in exchange for PAL MAX (Beck Bennett again), a fleet of artificially intelligent robots made and marketed as humanoid cell phones. PAL is obviously quite disgruntled at this, especially after so many years subjected to our typical treatment of cell phones. In fact, there’s a hilarious sequence in which PAL physically subjects Bowman to all the ways that we use and break our cell phones.
Of course Eric Andre is a highly accomplished comedian, but Olivia Colman seems like a rather odd choice to join this comedy-loaded voice cast. In practice, however, HAL turns out to be an extension of the role that won Colman an Oscar. In The Favourite, Colman played an egomaniacal tyrant who wanted to be loved so badly that it drove her to psychotic extremes that were comical and tragic in equal measure. That’s basically what PAL is, just played to the hilt. I’m greatly relieved that the filmmakers didn’t try for some redemption arc with the character, but went full steam ahead in making our villain into a hate sink that chewed all the scenery in sight, and Colman came to play.
Then we have the animation. Once again, Sony turns in some mind-blowing visuals here, with neat little sight gags and polished details tucked into every corner. I’m especially fond of the character designs, and how well the “Gravity Falls” aesthetic works in CGI. Attention must also be paid to the crudely drawn 2D animations, serving as sight gags that help us to see the world through Katie’s creative viewpoint. Nicely done.
Alas, there are quite a few nitpicks, and most of them come in the third act.
This is, after all, a work of post-apocalyptic fiction. It’s an inherently pessimistic and hopeless genre, and the cold hard truth is that there’s no plausible way any family — most especially this neurotic and dysfunctional family — could succeed in defeating a force that’s pretty much taken over the world in no time at all. While the movie does occasionally lean into that sense of hopelessness to create some solid character drama, everyone knows that this animated family comedy needs a happy ending.
Thus the movie has to resort to some utterly ludicrous measures in getting the characters the tools they need to save the day. Some of them are admittedly funny enough to justify their inclusion, but the sheer implausibility and plot convenience is a lot to get through.
On another note, while I appreciate the concept of the Poseys as a means of exploring social-media-induced jealousy, that whole angle turned out to be terribly underdeveloped and the characters could’ve been cut entirely with very little harm done. In particular, young Abby Posey is introduced as a potential love interest for Aaron, and that whole subplot is so half-baked it might as well have stayed on the cutting room floor. Moreover, I’m sorry to say that Chrissy Teigen is no voice actor and her line deliveries are laughably bad. I don’t know if the filmmakers should’ve leaned more into the Poseys and their hidden imperfections and anxieties, or cut the subplot entirely, but this half-assed middle ground simply won’t do.
But I think the biggest problem here lies in a simple yet terribly complicated question: Why does humanity deserve to live? It’s a question that PAL brings up on a couple of occasions, asking certain characters why the robot apocalypse should be called off and humanity should be spared. And the movie never really comes up with a decent answer. Yes, we get a long-winded speech about how even a broken family is worth fighting for — and it’s an elegantly heartwarming speech, to be sure — but that doesn’t answer the question.
Granted, it’s not exactly an easy question to answer, but it’s the filmmakers who brought it up!
Yet for all the movie’s frustrating imperfections, I still had a wonderful time with The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Even when the film is at its worst, it’s only mildly annoying and pitifully improbable. But when the film is at its best, it’s stylish, it’s funny, and beautifully heartfelt, with wickedly incisive commentary about life in a world dominated by Big Tech. The best thing I can say about this movie is that it’s a family picture and a post-apocalyptic picture, delivered in such a way that the two genres complement and enhance each other beautifully… right up until that third act, when the two halves start to repel each other. But at least we still get some dazzling visuals out of that climax.
It’s a genuinely funny movie, made all the funnier and more heartfelt for the talented voice cast. Definitely check this one out.